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  3. Extreme Rescue: Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Receives DHS Secretary’s Award for Valor

Extreme Rescue: Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer Receives DHS Secretary’s Award for Valor

Release Date: May 6, 2022
DHS Secretary's Awards Banner for Roberts
The Secretary’s Award for Valor is the highest recognition for extraordinary acts of valor occurring either on or off duty. The employee will have demonstrated selfless response by performing courageously in a highly dangerous or life-threatening situation to protect another’s life or to save significant assets or infrastructure from harm. Both civilian and military employees of the Department are eligible for this award.

AST2 Grant Roberts, a rescue swimmer with the Coast Guard Air Station Sitka’s MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew and three of his fellow crewmembers – Lt. Justin Neal, Lt. Jonathan Orthman, and AET2 James Schwader – received the DHS Secretary’s award for Valor for their heroic actions while rescuing a 70-year-old fishing vessel owner and operator from stormy seas in 70 mph headwinds and zero visibility over the water and at the shoreline. Watch the video of the rescue.

MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew rescue
AST2 Grant Roberts (right), a rescue swimmer with the Coast Guard Air Station Sitka’s MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew, sits on a piece of debris with the survivor of the wrecked fishing vessel Irony. Roberts and the four-man crew were able to navigate extreme environmental conditions to safely evacuate the victim.

At 5:30 p.m. on November 1, 2020, an alarm sounded at Coast Guard Air Station Sitka, Alaska. An Emergency Position-Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB) registered to fishing vessel Irony had been activated in Earnest Sound, 150 miles southeast of Sitka. The crew departed the air station as a low-pressure storm system battered Southeast Alaska. Read the full story by the U.S. Coast Guard.

In today’s post, we look at the story of this daring rescue through Roberts’s eyes.

“What was more challenging than the sea state was the night conditions and water current,” said Roberts, a Utah native who has served in the Coast Guard for eight years. “I had completely lost sight of him when I got in the water.”

His team was able to put a spotlight on the survivor.

“I swam over to him, got on the door with him – or what looked like a door or some sort of debris from the boat – and talked to him,” Roberts continued. “He said, ‘I can’t believe you guys showed up. I thought I was going to die out here.’”

Four members of the Air Station Sitka’s MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew
Left to right: LTJG Jonathan Orthman, AST3 Grant Roberts, AET2 Jimmy Schwader, LT Justin Neal on the night of the rescue. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Roberts attributes the immersion suit the gentleman was wearing as the reason he had not become hypothermic yet.

“He was good but very cold,” said Roberts. “He was shivering uncontrollably, which was a good sign that he was not hypothermic yet.”

The 70-year-old and Roberts were hoisted into the helicopter together and the gentleman was able to warm up on the 10-15 minute transit to Ketchikan.

Roberts explained that a massive chain of activities are required to safely rescue someone and usually includes support from civilian partners (ambulance drivers, hospital staff, etc.). One weak link and the whole rescue could fall apart. He said there’s no way he could have gotten down in the water and to the survivor without all of the crew members doing their parts to safely navigate through the challenging weather and darkness of the night.  

Visit the Recognizing DHS Excellence page for more stories about this year’s awardees.

Last Updated: 05/06/2022
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